When Sarah Leighton displayed a photo of a local roundabout on her interactive whiteboard, one of her young pupils could hardly believe his eyes - "That's where my Mummy works," exclaimed the usually reticent four-year-old. He began explaining what it was like at the roundabout and was intrigued to discover he could pan around the entire scene on the board, sharing a 360o tour with classmates. His first confident steps in geographical exploration were taken with the help of Virtual High Wycombe software, a package that is proving just as popular with older students.
Sarah Leighton teaches at Great Kingshill Church of England Combined School, High Wycombe, where the software was commissioned from Hendrik Ball, whose son used to attend the Buckinghamshire primary. Hendrik runs educational media company Digitalsavvy, and he showed teachers how top-quality panoramic photos could be used to create convincing computer-based tours. Staff saw a great opportunity to capture their local area, bringing fascinating but often hard-to-visit locations within easy reach in the classroom.
Around 40 panoramas were shot for the CD-Rom this summer by a professional photographer, who was accompanied by teachers. They visited nearby shops, a dairy farm and a chalk stream, a furniture-maker, a woodland saw pit and a windmill. They managed to include a passing ambulance, police car and fire engine in the traffic they snapped at Marlow Hill roundabout. They toured Hughenden Manor, home of Benjamin Disraeli, as well as the church where the Victorian Prime Minister was laid to rest.
Virtual visitors are free to explore the wraparound landscapes and interiors at will, using the mouse or moving their finger across the whiteboard to alter their view. The panoramas include sky and ground shots, so the explorer can get a feel for the soaring canopy of trees in the woods or inspect the patch of worn carpet in Disraeli's dining room, zooming in really close to catch the detail.
The soundtrack conveys a sense of place; birdsong in the churchyard, chatter in the post office. But there is no commentary. Hendrik Ball, who spent 25 years as a television producer at the BBC, says: "The minute you use language and a commentary you set a package in stone. These are rich environments - everyone sees something different and learners can follow their imaginations as they explore."
The software is helping the younger geographers at Great Kingshill develop an understanding of where they live, while older classes move on to compare their local area with a contrasting location. Teachers have mapped the panoramas to a range of topics in the curriculum, and teaching notes provide background information on each location.
In Sarah Leighton's reception class, pupils take it in turns to come to the whiteboard and lead an exploration. Sarah says: "They love posing questions about their discoveries to the rest of the class. As the software is so interactive, it helps them develop skills in observation, deduction, reasoning and questioning. This resource is here whenever we need it.
Before we went out on our autumn leaf walk, we quickly reminded ourselves what summer leaves looked like at Hughenden Manor."
Sarah has used the package with older classes. She says: "Asking children to describe what they see in a panorama encourages them to use geographical vocabulary, and makes a great introduction to story writing. We can also use the software as the focus for debates - one child poses a theory and the others split into 'for' and 'against' camps, doing geographical detective work to support their case."
Roger Dodds, headteacher at Great Kingshill, stresses that the package is not intended to take the place of field trips. "I am a great believer in school visits and the software is superb for preparation and for giving pupils the chance to revisit what they have seen. But there are also places where you can't take children. The furniture factory is off limits. We couldn't squeeze a whole class into the post office, and the windmill is only open on Sundays."
Teachers are also using Virtual High Wycombe to support a range of other subjects, including history, RE and art, and Hughenden Manor provides a particularly rich seam of material on the Victorians.
Digitalsavvy is now marketing the software, and Roger says: "We invited local schools to last month's launch, but the package could also be extremely useful to inner-city students, who could compare and contrast High Wycombe with their own area."
Last year Hendrik Ball produced Welcome to Llandudno, a digital video resource to support QCA'sgeography Unit 13 at key stage 2. He says: "I am now beginning to explore how virtual panoramas could be commissioned for a large metropolitan area and offered to schools over a broadband network."
* Virtual High Wycombe runs on PC or Mac. A single-user licence costs from pound;75. Contact Digitalsavvy for details.
Tel: 01494 719 358 www.digitalsavvy.co.uk